NASA rebrands UAM Grand Challenge to embrace ‘advanced air mobility’
According to NASA officials, both “advanced air mobility” and “national campaign” better reflect the goals of the undertaking, which is planned as a series of field demonstrations to evaluate the readiness of new types of aircraft and airspace management systems. The demonstrations will progress in stages to encompass a full range of scenarios under varying weather and traffic conditions — including, but not limited to, scaled urban air taxi operations.
“We’ve talked mostly over the past couple of years about ‘urban air mobility,’” said NASA AAM mission manager Davis Hackenberg in the web conference that served as a virtual kick-off for the agency’s AAM Ecosystem Working Groups (a substitute for an in-person event that was canceled due to coronavirus concerns). “We’d always intended to include other types of [mobility], whether that was rural or urban, but the name I think was getting in the way a little bit.”
The more inclusive term “advanced air mobility” encompasses a wider range of transformational applications enabled by electrification and automation, whether performed by eVTOL aircraft, electric conventional take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, or small drones. These might include cargo transportation or aerial work operations, in addition to the large-scale air taxi operations that have become synonymous with “urban air mobility.”
However, NASA is still very interested in urban air taxi operations as “a challenging use case with high benefit” — not least because they promise to unlock economies of scale for a new generation of eVTOL aircraft. Consequently, the program will continue to work towards scaled urban demonstrations as industry readiness permits.
Meanwhile, NASA has decided that the term “national campaign” is better suited to the planned series of field demonstrations than is “grand challenge.” The latter term was borrowed from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has used it to describe a series of discrete technical competitions generally associated with a cash prize.
According to Bob Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, “national campaign [is] more emblematic of what we’re trying to accomplish, which is bringing the community together, and to demonstrate our progress towards moving up a readiness level, a maturity level, [in] our systems and our ability to operate together in an airspace safely.”
He emphasized, “This really is a high priority for NASA Aeronautics, and we’re going to dedicate substantial research toward enabling the emergence of this market.”
NASA recently announced the first participants in what is now the AAM National Campaign. Seventeen companies will take part in the campaign’s developmental testing phase, including 11 airspace management companies and six vehicle providers. Of those, Joby Aviation is the only company slated to fly an aircraft during the developmental testing phase, which will lay the groundwork for the campaign’s first formal demonstration, currently scheduled for 2022.
Meanwhile, the AAM Ecosystem Working Groups will provide a forum to comment, collaborate, and impact the overall ecosystem necessary to enable safe, high-volume AAM flight operations. NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration are seeking a “broad participation from many organizations” for the working groups, with the aim of “understanding the viewpoints of a diverse group of stakeholders and an understanding of the ecosystem as a whole.” More than 600 people logged on for the virtual kick-off event on March 23.